Authors and Libraries: How Does Working in a Library Help a Writing Career?
While authors have come from all kinds of jobs and occupations, there are certain professions that seem to produce more writers than others. Many authors started out as teachers or university lecturers — and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are also many authors who, at some point in their outside-of-writing careers, worked in libraries. It’s hardly a surprising revelation — writers and librarians alike generally have a lifelong love of books and reading. Famous librarian-writers of the past include Madeleine L’Engle, Alice Mary Norton, Beverly Cleary, and Margaret Mahy, among many others. There are also many current authors who have spent some, or most, of their working life in libraries, as explored in Katy Hershberger’s article “16 YA Authors Who Built Their Careers in Libraries.” These authors, including Jenny Han, Hal Schrieve, and Monica Zepeda, credit their library work as a crucial part of developing their writing career.
On a personal level, the idea of library work having a draw for budding authors makes sense. As a writer myself, I have worked in libraries both public and academic in the past, and recently returned to working in my local library, a job I already love. I know several other authors who work as librarians or library assistants, and who, like the authors in Hershberger’s article, see a strong link between their writing and their library role. I spoke to some of these authors about why writers are drawn to library work, beyond a love of books and the decision to pursue a day job that reflects that interest, and found that there are several major reasons why authors might spend a good chunk of their non-writing career working in libraries.
Libraries as Research Hubs
Libraries are an invaluable source of books, texts, and records that authors can use for research — and if you work there, you’ll soon learn all the tips and tricks of how to tease out information that you might need for future writing. In Hershberger’s article, Makiia Lucier describes how her work as a library assistant helped her hone her research skills:“‘working in an academic library taught me the fundamentals of research — how to navigate online databases, how to search the archives, where to turn when I hit a brick wall — an invaluable skill for a writer of historical fiction and historical fantasy.”
While academic libraries are obviously important centres for specialist research, public libraries can also be crucial research tools for authors, and working for one can put a writer in an even better position for research. My library workplace is small, but has its own dedicated section for local history, a great resource for a budding author playing around with a fantasy story that draws from her real-world community. Being able to scour the library catalogue for books I might need and order them in has also already been a huge boost to my writing.
Libraries in the Community
Of course, research for writers doesn’t just involve books and microfiche — for many, the most important information-gathering comes from talking to readers. I spoke to James Nicol, author of The Apprentice Witch trilogy and The Spell Tailors, who has worked in various roles in public libraries for the past 14 years. Nicol noted that library work “certainly gives you an idea of what people are reading and enjoying, and there is chance to host events — sometimes with other authors — which can be an interesting learning curve from both sides…It’s also expanded my personal network which can be helpful when it comes to promoting your work.”
Susan Brownrigg, author of historical children’s fiction including Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest, had a similar perspective. ‘The two jobs work really well together,” she told me, when we spoke about her writing and library work. “I am really spoiled in that I get to see all the new books that come in…I also get to see which books are requested and taken out — Wimpy Kid, Dogman, and Heartstopper have been definite favourites over recent months…Factual books remain popular with young library visitors, and it has been great to see more diverse titles being borrowed as well as the usual space and dinosaur books.”
Steffi Gardner, author of Life With Harry, agrees. “Working in a library environment often gives a writer an insight into people’s characters, including how they react with others on their good days and off days!,” she told me in our conversation. “As a result of this, sometimes you can give one of your characters an added dimension…I love writing for children; I like them to feel part of the story, so their thoughts about characters, situations, etc. are important to me. Working in a library is a privilege and has certainly impacted on my work and thoughts.” The importance of this interaction with teens was also noted by Monica Zepeda, who told Herschberger, “Working in a library allows me to keep track of trends and what’s popular in YA…I get to know what teens are into and what’s no longer cool. I get to see their dynamics when they interact with each other.”
Other Library Workers
Relationships with colleagues as well as library users can also be helpful for library-working authors. When talking to Hershberger, Jenny Han, author of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, noted that “My own books were coming out the entire time I was a librarian, and I was so fortunate to have a supportive and generous library director…She was flexible about my schedule, and she always said my book career should come first.”
Nicol also cited flexibility as a bonus of library work in his discussion with me: “The practical aspect is that it has offered the opportunity for me to work flexibly to different degrees so that I can also write and do my job as an author too.” Brownrigg found a similar flexibility in her library work: “One of the reasons I switched careers from heritage education to libraries in summer 2021, was that I wanted to reduce my hours. I hoped going part time would mean I could schedule author visits and have more time for writing, while still having a regular income — and that has happily been the case.”
These advantages, plus the bookish environment itself, mean it’s unsurprising that writers are drawn to library work. Hopefully, this is something that can continue — although with cuts to library services, and increasing far-right attacks on libraries running inclusive events, the future for libraries and the people who work for them is looking difficult. The commitment of many authors and author organisations to supporting libraries is understandable, and as writers, readers, and employees, the connection between authors and libraries is set to endure.
For a look at how libraries can play a role in comics events, check out How to Run a Successful ComiCon in Your Library. For a look at how library work can help on a personal level, read It’s All in the Cards: How Organising my Library is Helping my Brain.